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Faltering Zimbabwe Health System Further Reduced by Strikes - 2003-11-23

The faltering Zimbabwe public health system has been further reduced as nurses and senior doctors join junior and mid-level doctors on a month-long strike.

The nurses briefly joined the doctors striking last month for higher pay. They returned to work after being promised an 800 percent pay rise.

But the strike was on again after paychecks on Thursday showed no increase. It is reported that all nurses except those in intensive care and operating rooms are on strike at all government hospitals in Harare.

One nurse said that the situation is so bad that patients are being turned away and relatives who can afford it are taking their sick to expensive private hospitals. The state-controlled newspaper, The Sunday Mail, reported that even desperately ill patients are being turned away from hospitals.

One senior doctor who asked not to be identified said she and her colleagues decided to join the strike after a number of meetings on the pay issue yielded no positive results.

Doctors' pay in Zimbabwe dollars has been decimated by the currency's plunge. They say to restore their normal pay would require a salary increase of 8,000 percent.

A labor court has ordered the doctors back to work, but they say they will comply only if the government makes a written undertaking to address their grievance. The government has responded by arresting the leadership of the striking doctors for engaging in an illegal strike and for contempt of court.

A spokesman says it is illegal in Zimbabwe for doctors to go on strike because they provide an essential service.

Zimbabwe's public health-care system, once one the best in sub-Saharan Africa, has deteriorated badly. The chronic shortage of foreign currency for equipment and essential drugs has worsened the situation. Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are leaving the country in large numbers.